LAS VEGAS (AP) — Every day he wasn’t out recruiting or away at a game, Bill Musselman wrote a message on his son’s school lunch bag.
Effort, energy, enthusiasm.
The message and the relentless pursuit of perfection it implored served as the substratum of Eric Musselman’s life.
“Everything that happened with my dad and I, whenever I was around him, being a competitor was kind of beyond belief,” the Arkansas coach said Wednesday.
UConn coach Dan Hurley knows the feeling.
Like Musselman, he spent his childhood being told just good enough might as well be failure.
The two coaches’ sons have come together in the desert, preparing for a Sweet 16 game Thursday night that will push one a step closer to college basketball’s ultimate goal.
“I think being coaches’ kids just gives you such a unique perspective and it makes basketball such a huge part of your life,” Hurley said. “I think that’s why we both coach with so much passion and we live and die with every possession.”
Hurley’s father, Bob, is one of the few high school coaches to be inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame, a hoops firebrand who led St. Anthony High School to 26 New Jersey state titles.
Dan and his brother Bobby played for their father and watched as he demanded excellence from his players on and off the court.
Bobby won two national championships as a player at Duke and is currently Arizona State’s head coach.
Dan played at Seton Hall and, after stints at Wagner and Rhode Island, was tasked with rebuilding UConn back into national prominence when he was hired five years ago. The Huskies have gone to the NCAA Tournament in each of the past three seasons and are one win from the program’s first Elite Eight since winning the 2014 national title.
“I want to be the college version of my dad,” Hurley said. “I want to coach with integrity, be a man of my word and have the holistic type of approach that my dad had, be a coach’s coach like my dad, not a phony or a fraud or a liar or a cheater.”
How important has his dad been? Hurley had to compose himself for several seconds after being asked about him Wednesday in Las Vegas.
“That was a brutal last question, buddy,” he said before pausing. “I’m just glad my dad’s at the games.”
Musselman’s dad, who died at 59 in 2000 after suffering a stroke, zigzagged his way across the country coaching in the NBA, American Basketball Association, Western Basketball Association and college over four decades.
His father’s travels gave the younger Musselman a unique view into the world of basketball and beyond.
Musselman went on road trips with his father, served as a ball boy for opposing teams and got to know people most kids at the time only dreamed of meeting. He absorbed his father’s intensity and attention to detail, and served as an assistant under him with the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves.
“To be able to work with him with the Timberwolves and watch his preparation, watch how he conducted practice, his attention to detail,” Musselman said. “And I was lucky to watch him meet with so many other coaches in different sports. I was just exposed to a whole different lifestyle than everybody else that I grew up with.”
Musselman followed his father’s coaching footsteps after playing at the University of San Diego. He became head coach of the Continental Basketball Association’s Rapid City Thrillers at age 24 and later coached the NBA’s Sacramento Kings and Golden State Warriors.
Musselman wanted to learn from the ground level
Intrigued by the prospect of coaching in college, Musselman wanted to learn from the ground level, so he took jobs as an assistant at Arizona State and LSU. He was clearly ready once he become a head coach, leading Nevada to three straight NCAA Tournament appearances, including a run to the 2018 Sweet 16.
Musselman has had even sweeter success in Fayetteville. He led the Razorbacks to the Elite Eight in his second season and returned there last year. He is seeking a third straight appearance in a regional final.
That run seemed to be headed toward an end this season when Trevon Brazile tore his ACL and five-star freshman Nick Smith Jr. was limited by knee injuries. The Razorbacks rallied like their tenacious coach, pulling off a win over No. 1 seed Kansas that Musselman celebrating with his shirt off.
“We just kept kind of grinding and looking at the next game on our schedule and trying to have belief,” Musselman said. “And here we are again. It’s a resilient team that’s overcome a lot for sure.”
Just like its coach — and UConn’s.